Top Terms to Know About Thermopylae

During the Persian Wars, in 480 BCE, Persians attacked the Greeks at the narrow pass at Thermopylae that controlled the only road between Thessaly and central Greece. Leonidas was in charge of the Greek forces; Xerxes of the Persians. It was a brutal battle which the Greeks (consisting of the Spartans and their allies) lost.

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Battle Of Thermopylae
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 485 BCE, Great King Xerxes succeeded his father Darius to the throne of Persia and to the wars between Persia and Greece. Xerxes lived from 520–465 BCE. In 480, Xerxes and his fleet set out from Sardis in Lydia to conquer the Greeks. He arrived at Thermopylae after the Olympic games. Herodotus improbably describes the Persian forces as being more than two million strong [7.184]. Xerxes continued to be in charge of the Persian forces until the Battle of Salamis. After the Persian disaster, he left the war in the hands of Mardonius and left Greece.

Xerxes is infamous for trying to punish the Hellespont.

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Reference Map of Attica, showing Thermopylae.
Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd

Thermopylae is a pass with mountains on one side and cliffs overlooking the Aegean Sea (Gulf of Malia) on the other. The name means "hot gates," and that refers to the thermal sulfurous springs that issue from the base of the mountains. During the Persian Wars, there were three "gates" or places where the cliffs jutted out close to the water. The pass at Thermopylae was very narrow, and it was the site of several battles during ancient times. It was at Thermopylae that the Greek forces hoped to drive back the massive Persian forces.

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Ephialtes is the name of the legendary Greek traitor who showed the Persians the way around the narrow pass of Thermopylae. He led them through the Anopaia path, whose location is not certain.

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Leonidas was one of the two kings of Sparta in 480 BCE. He had command of the land forces of the Spartans and at Thermopylae was in charge of all the allied Greek land forces. Herodotus says he heard an oracle that told him that either a king of the Spartans would die or their country would be overrun. Although improbable, Leonidas and his band of 300 elite Spartans stood with the impressive courage to face the mighty Persian force, although they knew they would die. It is said that Leonidas told his men to eat a hearty breakfast because they would have their next meal in the Underworld.

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The Greek infantry of the time was heavily armed and known as hoplites. They fought close together so that their neighbors' shields could protect their spear and sword-wielding right flanks. The Spartan hoplites eschewed archery (used by the Persians) as cowardly compared to their face-to-face technique.

A Spartan hoplite's shield might be embossed with an upside down "V"—really a Greek "L" or Lambda, although historian Nigel M. Kennell says this practice was first mentioned during the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE). During the Persian Wars, the shields were probably decorated for each individual soldier.

The hoplites were elite soldiers coming only from families that could afford the sizable investment in armor.

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Historian Nigel Kennell suggests that the first mention of the phoinikis or scarlet cloak of the Spartan hoplite (Lysistrata) refers to 465/4 BCE. It was held in place at the shoulder with pins. When a hoplite died and was buried at the site of the battle, his cloak was used to wrap the corpse: archaeologists have found remnants of the pins at such burials. Hoplites wore helmets and later, conical felt hats (piloi). They protected their chests with quilted linen or leather garments.

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The elite bodyguard of Xerxes was a group of 10,000 men known as the immortals. They were made up of Persians, Medes, and Elamites. When one of their number died, another soldier took his place, for which reason they appeared to be immortal.

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Persian Wars

When Greek colonists set out from mainland Greece, evicted by the Dorians and the Heracleidae (the descendants of Hercules), perhaps, many wound up in Ionia, in Asia Minor. Eventually, the Ionian Greeks came under the rule of the Lydians, and particularly King Croesus (560–546 BCE). In 546, the Persians took over Ionia. Condensing, and oversimplifying, the Ionian Greeks found the Persian rule oppressive and attempted to revolt with the aid of the mainland Greeks. Mainland Greece then came to the attention of the Persians, and war between them ensued. The Persian Wars lasted from 492–449 BCE.

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To medize (medise in British English) was to pledge loyalty to the Great King of Persia. Thessaly and most of the Boeotians medized. The army of Xerxes included the ships of Ionian Greeks who had medized.

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The 300 were a band of Spartan elite hoplites. Each man had a living son at home. It is said that this meant that the fighter had someone to fight for. It also meant that the noble family line would not die out when the hoplite was killed. The 300 were led by the Spartan king Leonidas, who like the others, had a young son at home. The 300 knew that they would die and performed all the rituals as if going to an athletic competition before fighting to the death at Thermopylae.

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Anopaia (Anopaea) was the name of the path that the traitor Ephialtes showed the Persians that allowed them to circumvent and surround the Greek forces at Thermopylae.

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A trembler was a coward. The survivor of Thermopylae, Aristodemos, was the only such individual positively identified. Aristodemos did better at Plataea. Kennell suggests the penalty for trembling was atimia, which is a loss of citizen rights. Tremblers were also shunned socially.

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Gill, N.S. "Top Terms to Know About Thermopylae." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). Top Terms to Know About Thermopylae. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Top Terms to Know About Thermopylae." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).